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Money talks: Cash or Credit

From Computerworld Magazine
November 2, 1998

By Mari Keefe

High salaries and big perks are luring IT students away from college before they finish their degree.

Should I stay, or should I go now? If I go there will be trouble, and if I stay it will be double. So come on and let me know. Should I stay, or should I go? -- The Clash

You may be asking yourself the very same question - whether to go for those enticing salaries or stay in college and finish your degree. After all, Bill Gates, Michael Dell and Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak all quit school. Should you? It depends on who you talk to. Most academics and recruiters say: "Stay in school."

A college degree not only shows a level of commitment and discipline, but it also can pave the way to career advancement by enabling you to build on a solid foundation of specific skills training.

Students who leave school early without a degree are "plastering a ceiling above themselves and won't get nearly as far as they would have with a degree," says John Biles, undergraduate program coordinator of the Rochester Institute of Technology's Information Technology department in Rochester, N.Y.


Jason O. Watson University of Virginia student Jason Watson, 20, got a cold call after a company saw his resume on the Internet. He was offered a salary of $60,000 plus moving expenses for an Internet-related job. He turned it down. Jason is now a junior and plans to finish his degree in cognitive science and then get a master's degree in computer science. Why did he turn it down? "If I'm worth $60K now, I'll be even more valuable with a bachelor's and master's degree," he says. "Those jobs will still be there when I finish school."

Watson has a lot of work experience already. He is the leader of the Web team at his university's Computer Science department, has a large portfolio of Web sites he's created and has done intranet work for the FBI. He recommends internships and co-ops because they offer a way to "get a feel for what it will be like exactly."

"Money isn't going to show you what it's going to be like and if you're going to like it," he says. "You're in the driver's seat," Biles says. He advises students faced with the decision of dropping out of school to leverage that interest into getting prospective employers to finance the rest of their bachelor's degree.

Getting an employer to underwrite your degree may be easier than you think. While large corporations prefer to see a degree, those willing to make exceptions will often work with the student toward the goal of obtaining a degree.

SPSS, Inc., a developer of statistical and service products in Chicago, hires people without degrees but only if they make a commitment to eventually complete their degrees, according to Theresa Dear, human resources director. There are certain things - project management, for example - that you just can't learn on your own, she says. To sweeten the deal, SPSS offers an incentive bonus: Students get half of the bonus when their degree is half completed and the other half when they matriculate.


Mike Vitalo says accepting his job at InfoGlide in Austin, Texas, is the best thing that ever happened to him. He has taken classes at Austin Community College and the University of Texas at Austin but doesn't have a degree. As lead project editor at InfoGlide, a developer of a new database architecture that processes "dirty," or unscrubbed, data, the 25-year-old makes about $47K plus stock options.

Vitalo was a waiter at a local barbecue joint when InfoGlide President David Wheeler sat at his table and mentioned he was looking for a C++ programmer. Vitalo spoke up about his C++ skills and got the job.

The best experience is the real world, Vitalo says. "If you're going to be a programmer and build applications, then the real world is a better place to get experience because academia isn't going to teach you the necessary languages, and the emphasis there is on application development and theory," he says. Vitalo says he is learning valuable technical and entrepreneurial skills at InfoGlide. "Success is not predicated on scholastic success," he says.

Vitalo isn't totally down on school, however. He says he may someday complete his education, but for now, his job is right for him.


With a mathematics degree already in hand, Corey Frye, 22, will finish up his computer science degree at Southern Methodist University in Dallas in May. He works part-time at Motorsports Simulators, Inc., a gaming company in Dallas. He got the job through a friend and says it was an opportunity too good to pass up. The company was more than happy to oblige when he came up with a flexible schedule that would allow him to attend school.

Frye earns $36,000 per year plus stock options and benefits. But he couldn't care less about the money. It's the experience he's after. "Get your paper absolutely, no doubt about it. The job market is not going to last forever," he says. He adds that his senior software engineering class helped him to hit the ground running at his job.

Even so, the industry is rife with dropout success stories. And companies that aren't wedded to the degree-in-hand rule are quick to note that in many cases, college computer science departments have not yet caught up with today's hot skills and needs, including Java, Web development and enterprise resource planning. For example, Watson says that for Web development projects, he'd lean more on past work experience and references than a degree because many college programs don't teach such technology. What's more, a lot of Web development requires more business-oriented skills than programming. Your decision can also depend on the type of job you are looking for. A software engineering position may be more apt to require a degree than a Web designer job.

Of course, internships and co-ops are one of the best ways to help you decide if you are ready for the real world. "Many students are shocked at what it's like," says Ken Wang, chief technology officer at Waltham, Mass.-based Lycos, Inc. "It's more serious than class. You can't blow something off."

So what should you do? "Take the path that appeals to your talent," Frye advises. "Make a decision that adds to your lifestyle."

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